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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 24, June 7, 2014

South Asia on Cusp of Strategic Realignment?

Monday 9 June 2014, by M K Bhadrakumar

The South Asian region seems ripe for a strategic realignment, although no one cares to talk about it openly. The Russian report to the effect that Moscow is ending its self-imposed arms embargo on Pakistan amounts to a signal that the tectonic plates of the geopolitics of the region are shifting.

If the report is true—RIA Novosti is an official news agency—this is further confirmation that India and Russia are drifting apart. From a stance of benign neglect of the relationship in the post-Cold War era, the two countries are careering away from each other.

The Manmohan Singh Government conscio-usly atrophied India’s ties with Russia and in the haste to build mil-to-mil relations with the US, Russia’s pre-eminence as India’s number one arms supplier was steadily whittled down. Simply put, Uncle Sam has replaced Ivan in the Delhi darbar and that’s precisely what the doctor in Washington prescribed.

The proverbial last nail on the coffin could have been the impasse over Kudankulam 3 and 4 due to American pressure. It should be no sur-prise if the Russians feel thoroughly disillu-sioned.

At any rate, Moscow has understood that it is steadily losing ground in the Indian market to the American (and Israeli) arms manufac-turers. Meanwhile, Japan is also knocking at the door, poised to enter the Indian market.

The alacrity with which the new government in Delhi is fast-tracking the proposal to allow 100 per cent foreign direct investment in the defence sector is virtually tailor-made for the American and Japanese companies to take over India’s arms industry. The doctor in Washington prescribed that, too.

The Russians have understood that it is about time to move on. Pakistan is virgin soil for the Russian arms industry. But then, there is always more to arms sales than commercial conside-rations. Such transactions also imply a highly strategic partnership and that emanates out of a high degree of strategic congruence. A Russian-Pakistani-Chinese axis has profound impli-cations for regional security. It isolates India in its region.

India’s tilt toward the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia, which was subtle or nuanced during the UPA rule can be expected to become more pronounced under the new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On the other hand, the US’ ties with China and Russia have come under great stress lately.

Maybe, the fallout is not to be measured in coffee spoons or put into water-tight ‘blocs’— at least, not yet—but my forecast is that India will be alone among the South Asian countries to gravitate toward the US’ rebalance strategy.

India’s neighbours are either likely to borrow from India’s old repertoire and remain ‘non-aligned’ or, more likely, they might edge closer to China and Russia. No doubt, their top priority will be to keep the Indian wolf at arm’s length.

It is anybody’s guess whether such a realign-ment would enhance India’s regional standing in South Asia or diminish it. Our elites and Right-wing nationalists would probably think that being the ‘natural ally’ of the US is any day worth its weight in gold in comparison with the wretched company that our impoverished decrepit South Asian neighbours offer. If only India could choose its neighbours...

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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